Natural Learning Environment Practices

The Connecticut Birth to Three system promotes the use of the following research supported practices: Natural Learning Environment practices, Coaching as a style of interaction, and Primary Service Provider approach to teaming.

Natural environments are more than places where children live, learn, and play.  Natural learning environment practices start with looking at the activities children participate in during their everyday life at home and in the community.  These everyday activities provide learning opportunities which, in turn, lead to increased participation and skill development for the child. (1)  Researchers in the field of early childhood have identified that children learn best when they are participating in these naturally occurring learning opportunities that are a part of everyday routines and activities within the real life of their families and other children they know.(2,3,4)

We know that learning requires participation and engagement in goal-directed activities –  things that the child is interested in doing.  Engagement is defined as “the amount of time children spend interacting appropriately with their environment”.(5)  For children this means that learning occurs when they are interested, engaged and participating in activities that are typically happening in their and their family’s day.

Research shows that children also learn through incredible amounts of repetition.  For example, typically developing children learn to walk by practicing over a 3-5 month period,  6 hours per day, 500-1500 step per hour, walking 9000 steps and the length of 29 football fields per day!(6)  High levels of practice  is necessary to foster a child’s learning and this is made possible by providing opportunities for learning, over and over during the naturally occurring activities in the child and family’s life. Birth to Three focuses on supporting the family’s confidence and competence in their ability to provide opportunities in their everyday activities for their child to learn and develop. (7)  Many learning opportunities  occur during activities in the home, such as: eating, reading stories, playing with siblings, taking a bath, folding laundry.  Other learning opportunities occur in the community, such as: going to the playground, going grocery shopping, going to playgroups and story hours, participating in church activities, and during attendance at childcare centers.  While there are activities common to many families, every child, family, and community is unique. What is a natural part of one family’s routine may never happen in another family. Even when the same activity is identified by two families, what occurs during the activity will look different for each family. These natural learning environments represent each family’s individual culture, family functions, and family priorities. (1)

Natural learning environment practices should be the focus throughout all supports and services for the family including:

  • the very first contacts with families when explaining Birth to Three practices and the role of the family
  • initial assessment when involving the family in sharing the child’s unique abilities, needs, and interests
  • the IFSP process with further exploration of the family routines and the child’s participation in those routines, along with ongoing exploration of the family’s concerns and priorities
  • during home and community visits focusing on the family’s priorities and working to support parents and caregivers within their typical activities
  • development of activities and strategies in conjunction with the family that will be carried out by the family during, as well as in between visits
  • supporting the many transitions in the child’s and family’s life.

1 CT Service Guideline 2: Natural Environments, Revised January, 2009.

2 Dunst, C. J., Bruder, M. B., Trivette, C. M., Raab, M., & McLean, M. (2001). Natural learning opportunities for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Young Exceptional Children, 4(3), 18-25. (Erratum in Young Exceptional Children, 4(4), 25)

3 Shelden, M. L., & Rush, D. D. (2001). The ten myths about providing early intervention services in natural environments. Infants & Young Children, 14(1), 1-13.

The Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center. Accessed December 3, 2014.

5 McWilliam, R.A. (April, 2010). Enhancing Services in Natural Environments [webinar]. Retrieved from

6 Adolph, K. E., Vereijken, B., & Shrout, P. E. (2003). What Changes in Infant Walking and Why. Child Development, 74(2), 475-97.

7 Shelden, M. L., Rush D. D. (2013) The Early Intervention Teaming handbook: The Primary Service Provider Approach. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Co.

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